Steven R. Ward: What previous protests and revolutions in Iran can teach us about the current crisis





[Steven R. Ward is a senior Middle East analyst for the U.S. government. He is the author of Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces (Georgetown University Press, 2009). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency.]

On the eve of the centennial of Iran's first modern revolution, the country is experiencing the latest in a series of popular eruptions against an oppressive government. It was 100 years ago this month that Iranian freedom fighters were marching on Tehran to depose an autocrat they could no longer abide. By mid-July 1909, this army of varied tribal, ethnic, and secular democratic mujahedin would capture the capitol and send the Qajar monarch, Muhammad Ali Shah, packing to Russia, placing his young son on the throne of a revived but still infant constitutional monarchy. Iran's early democracy, however, expired within two years because of reactionary pressures and the revolutionaries' inability to live up to their principles, a fact that should instill some caution regarding attempts to discern the many twists and turns such challenges to an existing order in Iran can take.

Since the late 19th century, the major civil disturbances that have repeatedly roiled Iran have shared a number of features that can put the prospects of the current anti-government demonstrations into perspective. Though there are many factors that have influenced the outcomes of past Iranian protests--including the strength of opposition leaders and complaints about foreign domination --history indicates that the most important factor affecting the success of nationwide dissent is the perceived strength of Iran's security forces. Unfortunately, this history does not bode well for the Iranians now demanding a greater voice in how they are governed.

The Qajar-era Iranian military, who unsuccessfully tried to fend off the assault on Tehran in 1909, was under-funded, poorly trained and equipped, badly led, and often sympathetic with the mujahedin fighting for the constitution. Though the army grew stronger in the following decades, the short-lived autonomous republics of Gilan in 1920-21 and Azerbaijan and Mahabad (Iranian Kurdistan) in 1945-46 were able to overcome the Iranian armed forces with the support of Soviet Red Army units.

By the time that the last shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, battled Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s, the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces were large, well-armed, and lavishly funded. But they were undermined by the vacillating monarch's shifts between repression and accommodation, which included the punishment of some security officials for their harsh measures. The shah's undercutting of his generals aggravated their already poor leadership and hurt the morale of the junior officers and enlisted men....

Iran's current leader, the 70-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has enjoyed the strong backing of the IRGC as he has consolidated power over the past 20 years. The overt support for him shown by the security forces will be one of the most important indicators of where he stands with the Iranian people--and, in turn, will provide some insight into how bold they can be in pressing for change.

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